What have we learned from Bari Weiss? We need plurality in journalism

What can we learn from Bari Weiss’s and Andrew Sullivan’s resignations?
David, by email

Forgive me, we’re going to go a little inside baseball this week. Now, for those who have better things to do with their lives than spend all their time online on social media sites (weirdos), a quick catchup. Bari Weiss was a columnist at the New York Times and Andrew Sullivan was a columnist at New York magazine. Weiss, in particular, was what is euphemistically called “a polarising figure”, which is a nice way of saying she drove some people completely bananas.

I met Weiss this year when she came to London to promote her book, How to Fight Anti-Semitism and we have stayed friendly since. But, even before I met her, I never really got the ferocity she provokes, this young woman on the American centre-left who is pro-Israel. I loved some things she wrote and disagreed with others, which is true of pretty much every columnist I read, because who agrees with anyone about everything?

In the end, it wasn’t a column that spelled the end for Weiss, but a tweet thread, posted last month. She defended the New York Times’ decision to publish an op-ed by the Republican senator Tom Cotton, in which he argued that the military should be brought in to end the riots in the wake of George Floyd’s death. Other Times reporters tweeted that, by publishing this piece by a US senator, the Times had put them “in danger”, and two editors ended up stepping down. In the middle of all this, Weiss tweeted that there was a “civil war inside the New York Times between (mostly young) wokes and the (mostly 40-plus) liberals”, saying that the former believe that “to feel emotionally and psychologically safe trumps … free speech”, while the latter group “lives by a set of principles we can broadly call civil libertarianism”.

Well, from the reaction from some on the left, you would have thought Weiss had demanded the slaughter of all household pets, as opposed to stating a pretty commonplace theory. After being pilloried on Twitter, Weiss resigned last week. She posted a letter detailing how colleagues had smeared and vilified her on Twitter and on the New York Times’ Slack messaging system, and said that Twitter had become the “ultimate editor” of the New York Times, with writers and editors self-censoring out of fear of causing a social-media backlash.

Two days later, Sullivan, a widely revered columnist, also stepped down because, he said in his letter, “a critical mass of the staff and management … no longer want to associate with me … They seem to believe, and this is increasingly the orthodoxy in mainstream media, that any writer not actively committed to critical theory in questions of race, gender, sexual orientation and gender identity is actively, physically harming co-workers merely by existing in the same virtual space.”

Stories like this inevitably become a culture war, with everyone picking their side according to how they see themselves politically (although I would wager that a fair few people tweeting about Weiss, especially in the UK, have never read a single article by her). To some, this looks like old rightwing dinosaurs refusing to adapt to the times. To others, it’s lefty censorship. Weiss and Sullivan haven’t been censored, but it sounds as if they have – Weiss in particular – been bullied. She says she has been called a Nazi and a racist by colleagues and has had to brush off comments that she is “writing about the Jews again”.

Sullivan is patently right in saying there are currently certain orthodoxies in left-leaning US news organisations, and Weiss is also clearly right to point to Twitter as part of the problem. Most journalists, myself included, are on Twitter too much, and I have certainly felt the brunt of Twitter when I have swerved from whatever the left-leaning orthodoxy is. It’s bearable, if not especially pleasant, but if New York Times journalists and editors are self-censoring to avoid Twitter pile-ons, then that’s a problem, not least because Twitter is an incredibly niche voice; one that reflects a tiny percentage of the population.

It’s reassuring to think such febrile behaviour couldn’t happen in the UK. But, last week, David Jordan, the BBC’s director of editorial policy and standards, told the Lords communications and digital committee that some BBC journalists are addicted to Twitter, and the BBC is hardly the only organisation with that problem.

So what to learn from this? Well, you can laugh at Weiss and Sullivan, and say their views are irrelevant these days, and hundreds of journalists are losing their jobs because of cutbacks, so who cares? Or you can look at the vilification of a centre-left Jewish woman and a gay, HIV-positive man and think that maybe journalism needs more than ever not to paint itself into tiny corners, and has a greater duty than ever to reflect the world, in all its plurality. Inclusivity doesn’t mean including only those you agree with.


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